‘It’s just an easy lifestyle’: Rick Pitino finding success, enjoyment at Iona

Rick Pitino Iona College Basketball
Iona Gaels head coach Rick Pitino looks on against Kansas Jayhawks in the first half at HP Field House.
Jeremy Reper-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Pitino sounds like a coach who is pretty happy with where he is. Two years into his tenure as the head of Iona College’s men’s basketball program, things seem to be on the right track for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame head coach. 

New Rochelle-based Iona has quickly become a powerhouse in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) and Pitino seems to have found a renewed sense of vigor at the small Catholic college that’s nestled less than an hour outside of Manhattan. The Gaels are in the midst of a perfect 10-0 record in the MAAC this season, and on Sunday they knocked off the No. 2 team in the conference, Saint Peter’s. 

That’s all happened in the midst of Pitino picking up his 800th career win as a college head coach. 

“I told the team I’m glad I got 800 here, but I want to get another 200 here,” Pitino said. “God willing I don’t roll a seven anytime soon and it will happen. I’m real, real pleased coaching these guys that I can get 800 here. The school is a small school that you appreciate all the little things. It doesn’t have the big things. It doesn’t have the bells and whistles I had at Louisville and Kentucky, but none of that bothers me. 

“That’s the great thing. I love the fact I don’t have to get on a plane and go play somebody. I love the bus trips.”

The New Rochelle campus is a far cry from the basketball powerhouses at the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, where Pitino coached from 2001-2017 before he was fired for his involvement in a pay-to-play scandal that occurred when he was head coach. The NCAA vacated Louisville’s 2013 national title for it and stripped him of 123 wins as well. 

Now, nearly four years removed, Pitino has moved past what happened at Louisville and doesn’t hold any animosity toward the university for firing him. The 69-year-old has quickly found out what previous coaches before him had discovered. 

“It’s just easy. It’s just an easy lifestyle to coach kids that really care,” Pitino said. “We’re not worried about let’s get an NIL for $150,000. Nobody worries about that. You just worry about playing ball and getting better. I’m happy I’m here. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve had.”

That’s a resounding statement from a coach that has led five different programs to the NCAA tournament. 

While Pitino has an appreciation for the simplicity of coaching without some of the extra add-ons of a bigger program, that hasn’t diminished his intensity. A very animated Pitino patrolled the sideline on Sunday during the win over Saint Peter’s — and that’s a trait that his players have come to expect from him. 

“He was intense when I first met him and he’s still intense now,” Iona guard Elijah Joiner said.

That has certainly paid off as Iona has defeated every conference opponent they’ve seen this year and are halfway to a perfect season in the conference, which would make them the first MAAC team to do so since La Salle accomplished the feat during the  1989-90 season. 

For guard Tyson Jolly, what put the Gaels on their current trajectory was the summer exhibition schedule they played in Greece last August.

“When we played the national teams after being together as a whole team for a week,” Jolly said. “Going down there and actually competing, actually learning each other, figuring each other out, and just seeing how hard we fought for each other. And fought with each other during the times of not even knowing each other and playing for a coach that we just got here. 

“He’s yelling and we don’t understand what he’s talking about and just how we bonded.” 

Joiner, Jolly, and the rest of the Iona basketball team also got a reminder of just how prominent their head coach was. During the trip to Greece, Jolly remembered the number of people that recognized Pitino. 

Jolly recalled while in Athens kids and fans called out Pitino’s name and asked for pictures. “It’s like hold up man he’s getting LeBron (James) love out here,” he said with a laugh. 

While there has been some chatter about Pitino possibly being considered for the vacant job at Maryland — he appeared to indicate that he wasn’t interested in leaving Iona on Sunday — the hall-of-fame coach knows that he needs to enjoy each day he gets to coach college basketball.

“My window is closing so I want to get the most out of every single day,” Pitino said. “I know when my time will be up. … Fortunately for me I’m not close to that.”

More from around NYC